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The Shooting of Zachary Hammond: Is This What Self-Defense Looks Like?

No matter what prosecutors say, killing a teenager during a penny-ante pot bust cannot be justified.

SLEDSLEDAs Ed Krayewski noted yesterday, a local prosecutor has decided not to charge the Seneca, South Carolina, police officer who shot and killed 19-year-old Zachary Hammond during a penny-ante drug sting on July 27. Police planned to arrest Hammond's date, 23-year-old Tori Morton, whom an undercover cop had lured to a Hardee's parking lot by pretending to be a pot buyer. Morton was sitting in the front passenger seat of Hammond's car as Lt. Mark Tiller approached the driver's side with his gun drawn. Tiller claimed he was forced to shoot because Hammond was trying to run him over. But that is not what the dashcam video of the encounter—which police did not release until yesterday, three months after the shooting—seems to show.

As Tiller approaches the car, Hammond backs up and makes a sharp left, trying to leave the parking lot. "Hands up! Put 'em up! Stop! Stop! Stop!" Tiller shouts. "I'm gonna shoot your fucking ass!" Then he briefly steps into the car's path before backing up, pushing against the car near the side view mirror. When Tiller fires the first shot, he is no longer in the car's path. He fires a second shot as Hammond is driving past him. There is no indication that Hammond ever aimed the car at Tiller, and Tiller was not in danger of being hit by the car when he fired those two rounds. According to an independent autopsy commissioned by Hammond's family, one bullet entered his left shoulder from behind while the other entered his chest from the side, which is consistent with the video.

Tenth Circuit Solicitor Chrissy Adams, the prosecutor who decided that state criminal charges against Tiller were not appropriate, conceded that the video, "viewed at full speed, standing alone, is troublesome." I think she meant troubling, but the slip is revealing: The video (a slowed-down version of which is posted below) is indeed troublesome for someone trying to justify the shooting. According to the South Carolina Supreme Court, the use of lethal force in self-defense is justified when these conditions are met:

(1) The defendant was without fault in bringing on the difficulty;
(2) The defendant...actually believed he was in imminent danger of losing his life or sustaining serious bodily injury, or he actually was in such imminent danger;
(3) If the defense is based upon the defendant's actual belief of imminent danger, a reasonable prudent man of ordinary firmness and courage would have entertained the same belief...; and
(4) The defendant had no other probable means of avoiding the danger of losing his own life or sustaining serious bodily injury than to act as he did in this particular instance.

Was Tiller "without fault in bringing on the difficulty"? Not in the ordinary sense of the phrase. According to The New York Times, Adams "criticized Lieutenant Tiller's actions, saying it had been 'improper' for him to run up to Mr. Hammond's car instead of staying behind the door of his own patrol car." Because he rushed right up to the driver's side of the car, she said, "control of the situation was lost." Or as Eric Bland, an attorney for Hammond's family, told the Times, "The officer put himself in an unreasonable position with how he came in hot, with guns drawn."

Did Tiller actually believe "he was in imminent danger of losing his life or sustaining serious bodily injury"? Adams concluded that he did.

Would "a reasonable prudent man of ordinary firmness and courage..have entertained the same belief"? Adams seems to think so. "The evidence from this investigation corroborates and supports Lieutenant Tiller’s belief that he was going to be run over," she said. "Therefore, the only conclusion that can be rendered is that deadly force was justified."

Yet the video and autopsy evidence indicates that Tiller was not "going to be run over." Although he was briefly in danger of being grazed by the car when he stepped into its path, that danger passed once he stepped back and Hammond continued on his way. It is therefore hard to see how Tiller can claim there was "no other probable means of avoiding the danger."

If Adams had charged Tiller with murder or manslaughter, the prosecution would have had the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that he did not meet the criteria for a legitimate self-defense claim. There's a good chance a jury would have given him the benefit of that doubt on all of these points, although the idea that lethal force was the only way to avoid the perceived danger seems inconsistent with the dashcam video and the autopsy results.

It looks to me like Tiller shot Hammond not in self-defense but to stop him from escaping. But according to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Fourth Amendment allows police to shoot at a fleeing suspect only when he "poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others." Again, it does not look like Hammond was trying to hurt anyone; he was just trying to get away.

A federal investigation of the shooting is still under way, but proving that Tiller committed a federal crime would be harder than proving the shooting was not justified under state law. The relevant statute is Title 18, Section 242, which makes it a federal crime to "willfully" deprive someone of his constitutional rights "under color of any law." Tiller would be guilty of that crime only if he knew the shooting was unjustified. As the Justice Department explained in its report on Darren Wilson's 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, "Mistake, fear, misperception, or even poor judgment does not constitute willful conduct prosecutable under the statute."

Whether or not Tiller's shooting of Hammond was legally justified, it cannot be morally justified. Even leaving aside Tiller's recklessness, the entire situation was orchestrated by the police to catch Morton with 10 grams of dried vegetable matter that you can legally and openly buy from state-licensed stores in Denver and Seattle. Hammond's death was stupid, pointless, and outrageous regardless of what state or federal prosecutors say about it.

Here is the full-speed version of the dashcam video, with audio:

Here is a slowed-down, silent version:

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  • Gene||

    I hope he gets the chipper.

  • ||

    And nothing else happened.

    CB

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    “The evidence from this investigation corroborates and supports Lieutenant Tiller’s belief that he was going to be run over. Therefore, the only conclusion that can be rendered is that deadly force was justified.”

    "Chrissy" knows three things have to occur for her to rubber stamp an investigation:

    (1) The shooter must be a coward.

    (2) The shooter must be a bumbling fool.

    (3) The shooter must have been given a badge at some point.

    The first two, while present here, are actually optional.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    And of course the reason police only released the footage now was because they knew public outcry would likely influence prosecutor Chrissy. Releasing it now is just tossing her under a bus (whose tires will no doubt barely leave a mark on her), and because they couldn't get away with not releasing now that any "investigation" has effectively ceased.

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  • Juvenile Bluster||

    The prosecutor really screwed up here. She would've made a lot more people happy if she indicted and then threw the case.

  • Juvenile Bluster||

    Toxicology reports, Ms. Adams said, showed that Mr. Hammond had tested positive for cocaine and marijuana. Cocaine was found in the pocket of his shorts, she said, and marijuana was found in his car.

    The old tried and true method of smearing the victim to justify a police shooting.

  • Riven||

    I bet he even had some loose cigarettes floating around in his car. That rat bastard.

  • Riven||

    I bet he even had some loose cigarettes floating around in his car. That rat bastard.

  • Cyto||

    Then he briefly steps into the car's path before backing up,

    That's exceedingly generous. He briefly moves near the front quarter panel of the car as it is moving from backing out of the space to moving forward and turning away from the curb. As the car turned it probably would have bumped him from the side if he hadn't moved back to the driver's window. But "tried to run him down" is not just a stretch. It is a completely irrational and unsupported version of events.

  • ||

    "Whether or not Tiller's shooting of Hammond was legally justified, it cannot be morally justified."

    Therein lies the rub. When these two conflict, we have have a problem.

  • sarcasmic||

    When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.
    -Bastiat

    I lost my respect for the law a long time ago.

  • sarcasmic||

    Likewise I can't see how anyone with any sense of morality can be involved in enforcing the law.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    American prosecutors have all the mental tools available to operate freely and without remorse under any totalitarian regime.

  • Vampire||

    It's not the law, it's politicians law, created by the state and enforced through the state's standing army.

  • Cyto||

    Additional observation on tactics:

    Why does the second officer moving in to support the arrest need to be plainclothes (and presumably in an unmarked car)?

    What are the odds that a real drug dealer will misconstrue two unmarked Dodge Challengers with armed men in jeans and polo shirts for a robbery or a gang hit?

    Cop two drives in from a remote location to affect the arrest. Is there any reason why this person wouldn't be in an ordinary cruiser with lights and in full uniform? They like to crow about "officer safety" all the time, but isn't waving a gun while running up to people you presume to be armed, criminal and carrying valuables without being easily identifiable as police kinda the opposite of making sure everyone goes home safe at night?

  • sarcasmic||

    but isn't waving a gun while running up to people you presume to be armed, criminal and carrying valuables without being easily identifiable as police kinda the opposite of making sure everyone goes home safe at night?

    Not really. They don't want everyone to go home safe. Only the cops. If they create a situation where the cops get to murder some people, then that's just a bonus. I mean, that's why people choose to become cops: to get away with murder.

  • adifferentken||

    A funny thing is that when they use these tactics accidentally on a real 'bad guy' or somebody who actually defends themselves against the screaming guys in ski masks cops die.

    They only 'work' against babies in cribs or scared teenagers. Hell, when they murdered Kathryn Johnson she popped off a couple of rounds into the ceiling and they shot the shit out of each other.

  • sudon't||

    Yeah, I think that's an important point. If someone in plainclothes runs up to you waving a gun, it makes sense to try and get away. It took me a awhile to realize that other guy standing around was also a cop. Only in the second video, when he cuffs the girl, does it become obvious what he's doing there. I certainly wouldn't have been able to make that determination in the heat of the moment, and never does the first cop, the shooter, ever identify himself as a cop.

  • MSimon||

    Events like this are why police are held in such high regard. Same thing happened during Alcohol Prohibition. It took the police 20 to 30 years to recover from that debacle. And just as they were getting their rep back they repeated the exercise.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Free society has been cleverly designed with thin gatekeepers operating freely at the scattered boundaries of dense chunks of power. The thin gatekeeper connects the out-there to the in-here. The in-here is the catchment of dark organizing machines working and grinding to plan, design, impose, and enforce. The out-there is the forever social wilds bristling with scenes and minds that can never be allowed to pierce the thick chunks of power.

    This is where the clever society builder comes in. Design thick chunks of power to be deep and powerful and accountable to the in-here with only the slimmest connections to the out-there. These fibrous connections to the out-there must be kept simple, direct, and unalterable with thin gatekeepers living at the threshold and operating purely under the guise of Freedom and its cousin Justice.

    The thin gatekeeper is light, wizard-like, imposing, powerful, narrow, nimble, and adept at maintaining the locked gate between the power machine and society.

    And thin gatekeepers must also be indelibly gifted with the ability to view murder like farting. Turd gas is blame gas. Blame well and the in-here and the out-there can be satisfied to a pretty decent extent.

  • Lee G||

    Submit or die

  • ||

    Stay for the snark... and the repeated nut punches.

  • Vampire||

    "We were told by Captain Lange that the order for the extermination of the Jews came from Hitler and Himmler. And as police officers we were drilled to regard any order from the government as lawful and correct. At the time I believed the Jews were not innocent but guilty. The propaganda had drilled it into us again and again; that all Jews are criminals and sub-humans who were the cause of Germany's decline after the first world war."

    Kurt Möbius - SS Guard

  • MSimon||

    That Kurt guy was too one sided.

  • SezWhom||

    Am I the only one who noticed that you don't see the actual shooting? The officer didn't shoot at the beginning of the encounter. What happened to cause him to shoot later? Wouldn't it be nice if anyone bothered to contemplate that? No, I dosn't have the answer, but neither does anyone else.

  • IceTrey||

    He shoots right before the car goes offscreen.

  • sudon't||

    He shoots later because it becomes obvious the kid is getting away. Can't have such dangerous criminals escaping.

  • Notorious UGCC||

    The comparison with Michael Brown is not fair.

    In *that* case, convicting the cop would have meant trying to rebut numerous impartial witnesses who said the cop was defending himself against someone who first tried to take his gun and then made another movement toward the cop car as if to repeat the attempt.

    Obama had every reason to throw the cop under the bus, he simply didn't even have enough evidence to pass the laugh test.

    Only Black Lives Matter idiots think there's nearly enough evidence to make the cop guilty.

    Here there's video of an agent of the state taking a suspect's life without a trial, without the excuse of self-defense. If the precedents allow this, the precedents need to be reconsidered. The Constitution is the touchstone, not what some crooked judges said about it.

    Due process must *precede,* not *succeed,* the deprivation of life with narrow exceptions of defense life or limb. Why trouble to put due process in the constitution if it doesn't mean *that*?

  • IceTrey||

    290 pound Brown ran 175 feet from the SUV. He turned and came back towards Wilson 21.7 feet. The audio of the shots lasts 6.5 seconds with a 3 second pause. That means Brown moved 21.7 feet in 3.5 seconds. That puts his average speed at 4.2 mph. That's a walk. It's definitely not a "full charge" as Wilson testified. Include the fact that Brown had not shown Wilson any weapon and that Wilson was not cornered (he could have backpedaled, turned and ran or dodged) and knew backup was on the way makes his shooting completely unreasonable.

  • IceTrey||

    What kind of a sick person would do something like this? That cop is deeply disturbed. Talk about depraved indifference.

  • RangerPaul||

    No matter what the prosecutor, police, victims or Reason says trying to find fault here is a fool's errand.

    The tragedy is that for 10 grams of pot a human life has ended.

    This is senseless. Prohibition on marijuana is insane and makes far less sense than prohibition on liquor did 95 years ago.

    One group with alcohol and cigarettes on their breath passing judgement over another group who prefers different drugs is insane.

    Trying to protect people from themselves by force is insane.

    Textbook definition of insanity. Keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.

    http://www.theguardian.com/fil.....peakeasies

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    Oh, a "poor, little, teen-ager"......
    Nineteen fucking years old, and legally an adult, and engaged in the drug-trade - which we all know is one of the safest occupations in the world.
    When you play at big-boy games, you have to expect big-boy penalties.
    If you can't spend the time, don't do the crime - and resisting arrest is always a crime with usually untoward results.

  • Tionico||

    crime? WHAT CRIME? WHO was the victim, and HOW was that victim harmed?

    and no, the "sensibilities" of "society" are NOT victims.

    What HUMAN was harmed, or would have suffered harm in the future, had this man lived? Or had the entrapment succeeded in completing the "sale"?

    Crimes require both victims and harm done. Neother happend with regard to this man.

    On the other hand, we do indeed have a victim... the 19 year old man, and his friend, snticed into the situation and certainly suffeering from the loss of whatever relationship was formerly had witih this nam.

    And we do have a clear HARM... a man is dead. There are parents, siblings, friends, acquaintances, now deprived of their relatioinships with this person.

    HOW is it that a third of an ounce of a garden weed (which it was prior to the CSA) in one's possession, not stolen from anyone, is a "crime"? And on WHAT AUTHORITY do FedGov carry any burden to regulate, control, prohibit, what any of us put/do not put into our own bodies? READ your Constitutiuon.. you DO have a copy don't you? If not, shame on you. Get one and READ it. Start with Article One Section Eighteen.. that names and defines the areas of responsibiltiy surrendered by the several sovereign states to the central government. Now go and read the Tenth Article of Ammendment. THAT puts a clear limit on FedGov.

    I ask again: WHAT CRIME?

  • sudon't||

    Selling small amounts of pot to your friends isn't a dangerous profession. Unless the police way over-react. Did you happen to notice that the cops were in plainclothes, and didn't identify themselves as police?

  • The artist known Dunphy||

    appears OBVIOUSLY UNJUSTIFIED BASED ON WHAT I HAVE SEEN

    not even close to justified

  • D. M. Michell||

    Another victim in the war against inalienable rights. The police state always protects their police state thug enforcers. That cop was in no danger of being run over, he just wanted to kill someone and knew he could get away with it. And wait! If this had been a black youth, Al Sharpton and Black Lives Matter would have been all over this, as well as the MSM.

  • dpbisme||

    Running from a cop with his gun drawn who has ordered you to stop. Anyone that stupid should be shot.

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